Fiction and Political Fact

Morris Dickstein in bookforum:

The political novel has always been an odd hybrid of fact and fiction. One of the genre’s originators, Benjamin Disraeli, the author of Coningsby (1844), was also one of the few writers who had genuine inside knowledge of the political world. But political novels usually deal with more than the intrigues of cabinet ministers and young men on the make. The boundaries of this genre are very hard to delimit. For some critics, the political novel is precisely the kind of book Disraeli, Trollope, and Henry Adams passed on to a few modern writers like Gore Vidal in Washington, D.C., Burr, Lincoln, and 1876: a novel focused, often satirically, sometimes historically, on the machinations of the political class—the men, usually men, with their hands on the levers of power. At the other extreme, postmodern theorists like Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious (1981) insist that the genre has no meaning, since “everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political.” To suggest that some works are political while others are not, Jameson says, is “a symptom and a reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life.”

Jameson’s point raises but also evades the issue that matters most to political fiction, the relation between private and public experience. The credo of many social and political novels was laid down by George Eliot in Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), when she remarked that “there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life.” Exploring that link is the sine qua non of good social and political fiction, a mission at once desirable and hard to bring off. American writers have found the challenge particularly elusive, at times almost insuperable. For novelists from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South Africa, politics is part of the air they breathe, but the climate in North America must be very different. Scarcely any of our writers made the cut in Irving Howe’s seminal 1957 study Politics and the Novel, still the best book on the subject. Perhaps the blankets of oppression that smothered the political life of Czarist Russia, Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, and South and Central America sharpened the political imagination of their writers, whether they lived in hope or in exile. But political fiction has also flourished in England, from Trollope’s great Palliser novels and Conrad’s near-hallucinatory tales of terrorism to the postwar novels of C. P. Snow and the multicultural flowering of literature by migrants from far-flung corners of the former empire.

If American novelists have rarely gone down this road with real success, it has certainly not been for want of trying or want of wanting.